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Revival! The forgotten works of Georg Philipp Telemann

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2’s In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, it’s a baroque composer whose fame eclipsed even J.S. Bach, in his day: Georg Philipp Telemann.

Who was Georg Philipp Telemann?

Perhaps Telemann is the least neglected of our revived composers thus far. But, considering that he wrote more than 3,000 pieces of music (certainly a record for the baroque period), he probably ought to be better known.

Telemann became a composer in spite of his mother’s firm disapproval. When she discovered that young Telemann had been surreptitiously learning the violin, she confiscated the instrument, lest it inspire her son to trade in his ecclesiastical aspirations for some kind of low-class, show-biz job like "a clown, a tightrope walker or a marmot trainer."

A marmot trainer, no less.

But, she need not have worried. By his early 20s, Telemann's music had already established the composer as one of the most distinguished individuals in the city of Leipzig. Throughout the decades that followed, he was perhaps the greatest musical celebrity of his time. In his early 40s, he even turned down the most prestigious church music gig in Leipzig, which eventually went to the city council's third choice: Johann Sebastian Bach.

Telemann's massive oeuvre includes music in nearly every genre of the time: passions, oratorios, motets, songs, suites, concertos, sinfonias, harpsichord solos, assorted chamber music, a pretty impressive list of operas and a gobsmacking array of cantatas. Just a quick scroll through the list is enough to demonstrate why Telemann was such a giant in European musical life.

Why have I never heard of him?

Well, you may have, if you've taken piano lessons. A number of his simpler keyboard works have found their way into the early grades of the Royal Conservatory of Music's piano syllabus

But Telemann languished in almost complete obscurity from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th — a rough stretch from which his reputation is still recovering. And, unlike in so many of these cases, we might just know who to blame for this: Bach. 

Or, rather, Bach's 19th-century biographers. Unlike Telemann, Bach fell out of fashion almost as soon as he died. And, when he was rediscovered and popularized around 1850, Bach's new champions tended to use him as a stick with which to beat Telemann. The musicologists Philipp Spitta and Albert Schweitzer both proclaimed Telemann's music to be mediocre and rushed — a consequence of his massive output. That was the popular view of Telemann for over a century.

However, amusingly, both Spitta and Schweitzer praised works that were thought to be by Bach but were later revealed to be by Telemann. Way to fail the blindfold test, guys.

Why should I check him out?

Telemann was a flat-out baroque master. He was revered in his time by both Handel and Bach, and teachers held up his music as a model for future generations of composers. He mastered the contrapuntal idiom that J.S. Bach favoured, and also dabbled in the classical style that would go on to define the music of C.P.E. Bach and Haydn.

There is absolutely no good reason that Telemann's name should not stand alongside Bach, Handel and Vivaldi as one of the greatest composers of this time period.

1. Germanicus

Telemann probably wrote more than 50 operas, but over a quarter of them are entirely lost and not likely to ever surface. Others, like Germanicus, are missing bits. But, that's hard to complain about when the parts we do have amount to 45 arias. That's three discs worth of music. It's possible that the full score of Germanicus stretched to Wagnerian proportions — more than a century before Wagner was born.

2. Cantata: Uns ist ein Kind geboren

Let's review: Telemann wrote a lot of cantatas. He wrote church cantatas for every liturgical season, funerals, consecrations and a few giant, secular ones that feel more like oratorios. 

It would take you months, possibly years of listening to trawl through all of these. But this spirited Christmas cantata is as good a place to start as any.

3. Harpsichord fantasias

There's more to Telemann's keyboard music than those dinky little tunes that you may have learned as a novice piano student. His "fantaisies pour le clavessin" are serious business. And, as the recording below proves, they sound best on a period instrument.

4. Trumpet Concerto in D

Telemann's list of concertos is almost as impressive as his list of cantatas. He wrote concertos for all of the major solo instruments of the day, none more glorious than this D major trumpet concerto. This is one of those pieces of music that might be the best thing that happens to you today.

5. Canonic sonatas

There was a time when the recorder was a serious instrument. Perhaps anticipating its ignoble descent into dollar-store novelty, Telemann made sure that these six sonatas for two recorders could also be performed on violins.

The premise is simple: two musicians play the same melody one measure apart, and miraculously, it works. And, for my money, it works best on the recorder. Granted, a little of this music goes a long way. Nonetheless, here are all six sonatas performed in succession, on their intended instrument. Do with this what you will.